Sunday, November 11, 2018

Paul Emil Von Lettow Vorbeck and East Africa During World War I: Hero or Villain?

The government of Germany set up an office in Mwanza, Tanzania in 1964 to identify World War I veterans and set up payments for the African veterans of the war. The story goes that about 350 old soldiers showed up, but only a few had a certificate given to them by the German General Lettow-Vorbeck. A German given the job of disbursing the funds came up with an idea. He would give an order in German to perform the manual of arms. All the 350 old soldiers did it without any problem. These were the few remaining African soldiers who fought on the side of the Germans in East Africa. What exactly did those soldiers do during the war is a story that has not been told. For history is often told from the top down, those in power tell their story while the majority remain silenced spectators. 
World War I was indeed a world war for those who lived in what is present day Tanzania, then German East Africa. The entire region was engulfed in a fire, a fire that burned for four years that led to the demise of innocent souls, fathers, mothers, daughters and sons. An estimated one million people perished, some were directly involved in the fight and the majority were not directly involved in the fighting. They became spoils of a war not of their making, a war that was set up in Berlin, London, Lisbon, and Brussels. 
The Germans under the command of Paul Emil Von Lettow-Vorbeck were able to outfight and outsmart a much larger army made up of British, South Africans, Belgian, and Portuguese forces. All the Europeans on both sides of the war depended on African soldiers to do the fighting and carry whatever they needed. A small German army made up of tens of thousands of Africans and several hundred Europeans, faced an army more than ten times bigger and they remained undefeated at the conclusion of the war in 1918. The war had a profound impact on the people of German East Africa. While many continue to celebrate Paul Emil Von Lettow-Vorbeck for his success in the battlefield, he must also be remembered for causing unspeakable suffering among the people who came within his path. There is little doubt that Lettow-Vorbeck was a brilliant soldier in the battlefield. His success in the battlefields during World War I places him in a category of his own. Yet success that comes with the kind of human cost and suffering witnessed in East Africa begs the questions: was the war a success to either side, who benefit from it, and are there any heroes? The military prowess of the much celebrated Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck must be investigated not just in what he achieved in military battle, but also from the perspective of the soldiers who did the fighting and the cost to African people.
World War I in the East African theater was fundamentally a fight between two groups of African soldiers led by European commanders. Unlike the battlefields in Europe that centered on trench warfare, the war in East Africa was fought and won mostly in mountains and valleys, in the forests and jungles; this was a fight between Goalith and David with no clear winner between the Europeans. Africans paid dearly with their sweat and blood. What follows here is a story from top down, a story that is told from mostly a European perspective, but one that attempts to address the human cost for the African majority who found themselves in the crossfire.
Lettow-Vorbeck was born in Saarlouis, Germany in 1870. He died in March 9, 1964 in Hamburg, Germany. Lettow-Vorbeck gained experience in China during the Boxer Rebellion. It is estimated that over 100,000 Chinese died during the rebellion. Lettow-Vorbeck worked with the Americans in China and gained valuable experience on guerilla warfare. The German government later assigned him to German South-West Africa (Namibia) when the Herero and Nama revolted in 1904. Some historians claim that the then Captain Lettow-Vorbeck did not participate in the Herero and Nama genocide. They claim he was evacuated to South Africa because of an injury he received in his eye and chest from a Herero warrior in 1906. The claim that Lettow-Vorbeck was not involved in the genocide is questionable in the big scheme of the German war against Africans in Namibia. He was an assistance to the Commander of German forces in South West Africa, General Lotha von Trotha. General von Trotha was relieved of his duties after reports of his brutality reached his superiors back home. As an assistant to the General, Lettow-Vorbeck was involved in the war against the Herero and Nama for about two years. The war turned into a genocide aimed at exterminating the two ethnic groups. Between seventy-five and eighty percent of the Herero were killed while about fifty percent of Nama perished as result of deliberate policy of extermination. An estimated 65,000 out of 80,000 Herero and 10,000 out of 20,000 Nama were killed. 
Lettow-Vorbeck cannot be cleared of responsibility in the extermination of the Herero and Nama. For he did take part in the war against the Herero and Nama from the outset. While von Trotha was relieved of his duties, Lettow-Vorbeck’s injuries appears to have saved his career. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and sent to command the German colonial forces in German Kamerun (Cameroon) in 1913. Lettow-Vorbeck was finally transferred to German East Africa in April 13, 1914. By the time Lettow-Vorbeck was transferred to East Africa, he had already mastered the art of guerilla warfare.
Building An Army
Lettow-Vorbeck arrived in German East Africa in January 1914. Lettow-Vorbeck was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel before being station in the territory. The German forces, Schutztruppe, were made up of about 2,500 African soldiers and 250 German officers, non-commissioned officers, and some doctors. He gradually increased this small army into a force to be reckoned with. Majority of the African men who joined the German army were Nyamwezi and others belonged to the many ethnic groups from the region. Eventually a good number of the Africans who joined the German army were conscripted. The African soldiers were divided into 14 field companies of Askaris. By the beginning of 1916, the Schutztruppe grew to about 12,000 Askaris and 3,000 Germans. Lettow-Vorbeck used his 12,000 African and 3,000 German soldiers to hold back 300,000 British, Portuguese, and Belgian forces for 4 years. They marched over 3,500 miles by the time they surrendered in 1918. Tens of thousand of Africans were employed as porters to carry food, weapons, and other supplies that were necessary to continue fighting. It is said that Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German Commander who invaded British colonial territory during World War I.
The Battle of Tanga
The Allied forces wanted to take of German East Africa. The plan was to attack city of Tanga in German East Africa and fight their way to other parts of the territory. This was supposed to be an easy invasion. After all, the German colonies of Togoland fell to British hands very quickly. Later German South West Africa and Cameroon would also fall to Allied forces. The British brought 8,000 Indian troops from Bombay to take part in the invasion of Tanga. British ships bombarded the German city of Dar es Salaam. Ignoring orders of the German Governor in Tanganyika, Lettow-Vorbeck decided to repel a major British amphibious attack in Tanga in November 1914. The Askaris and their German counterparts fought off the British in a battle that lasted four days in Tanga. The Schutztruppe repelled the Allied forces and acquired weapons from the enemy. The Allied forces had to wait for almost one and a half years before they launched another major campaign in German East Africa.
The strategy used by the Schutztruppe against the Allied forces was very effective. The German commanders knew that they were outnumbered and lacked resources and reinforcement. The best strategy was the use of guerrilla tactics. Lettow-Vorbeck had experience on guerilla warfare fighting the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion and the brutal war against the Herero and Nama of South West Africa came in handy. He carefully selected his targets and his forces attacked with lighting speed. The men operated along the plains of Mount Kilimanjaro, ambushing British soldiers and capturing weapons and supplies. There they captured enough horses to start an extra cavalry company that they used to fight off British forces. The Schutztruppe targeted the four hundred miles Uganda railway, dislodging trains, and acquiring more supplies. Details of the Askaris who did the actual fighting against the British forces and their allies are hard to find. It is clear that it was the African soldiers, the Askaris with the help of countless men and women who did all the necessary supporting roles that made Lettow-Vorbeck and his officers successful.
The British were paralyzed in East Africa for almost a year. Lettow-Vorbeck knew that the British were planning a major attack after Tanga. His forces were cut off from Germany. There was no hope that Germany would send supplies and reinforcements to German East Africa. Lettow-Vorbeck set off to make the colony and his army of Askaris self-sufficient. The Germans started fabricating car tires from local rubber and sulphur; they extracted Ersatz gasoline from coconuts; women were put to work weaving cotton to make cloth. This was done in anticipation of a major British offensive. It was ultimately the work of the African men and women that allowed Lettow-Vorbeck do what he was able to do for the remainder of the war.
Lettow-Vorbeck continued his attack on the British in January 19, 1915 at Jassin. The Askaris and their German commanders defeated British forces and were able to obtain new modern rifles and other supplies that were badly needed. The German forces decided to embark on guerilla warfare against the Germans. Lettow-Vorbeck’s strategy was to attack selected targets to force the Allied forces to turn to East Africa and away from the European theater. The General and his soldiers learned to adapt and survive in difficult terrain and harsh environment. The soldiers learned to use whatever they could find to remain a force to reckon with. For example, the soldiers removed artillery from German cruise SMS Konigsberg in the Rufiji River in 1915 and modified the guns to use as land artillery. But it was ultimately, by forcing the people they come across to provide them with whatever they needed, including food and more porters, that helped sustain Lettow-Vorbeck and his Askaris.
British Offensive 
The British planned a major offensive against Lettow-Vorbeck and his forces in march 1916 near Tabora. The British General J.C. Smuts from South Africa led 45,000 men; the forces included South Africans and Belgians. General Smuts sent another General, Charles Tombeur, to the frontlines to face the Germans and their Askaris. This was to be a major offensive. General Smuts brought with him 18,700 Boers from South Africa. The over-confident South African commander had considerable guerilla warfare back home. The battle was set to take place along the slopes of the famed mount Kilimanjaro.
Lettow-Vorbeck and his commanders plotted a clever strategy to fight the much larger army. The German forces was estimated to have about 6,000 soldiers at the time, majority of whom were Africans. They only engaged the enemy at selected areas, utilizing the terrain and climate to their advantage. It was an effective strategy. The British were determined to win. British troops were reinforced and kept fighting despite loosing many soldiers. The British lost 2,700 soldiers and Germans lost 519 at the important Battle of Mahiwa in October 1917. The German forces faced increasing challenges as the war raged on. Supplies were running out and there was no way to get reinforcement from Germany. Lettow-Vorbeck made the decision to withdraw his forces south. 
The two armies faced each others in numerous other skirmishes. In each case, The Schutztruppe and their Askaris managed to fight their way out and disappear into the forest. 
The Battle of Ngomano
The German and Askaris reached the Ruvuma River in November 1917. Their target was the well-supplied Portuguese garrison. The Schutztruppe attacked the Portuguese garrison and obtain plenty of badly needed supplies. One of the most valuable raid was the capture of a river steamer carrying medical supplies. The steamer had supplies of Quinine, a medicine that could be used to treat Malaria. . The German commander used the policy of scorched Earth as his troops moved between Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), German East Africa, and eventually Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The Schutztruppe and their Askaris were now reduced to about 2,000 soldiers. In the end, the British, Rhodesian, and Portuguese troops pursued them closely as they moved from one place to another, but could not defeat them.
The German and Askaris learned to adapt to whatever circumstances they faced. In a period of about one year, the soldiers were able to live off the land, taking needed supplies from people they encountered. They were able to obtained weapons and ammunition by attacking British and Portuguese stations and garrisons. For example attack on Namakura in Mozambique in July 1918 yielded newer rifles, machine guns, and mortars. The Schutztruppe and their Askaris continued to evade the British and Portuguese troops. They were able to attack and disappear.
The End
British forces were in hot pursuit of the German and Askari forces by early 1918. They tried everything possible to corner and defeat the Schutztruppe. Lettow-Vorbeck outsmarted the British at every turn. The British set a trap for the Schutztruppe in Tanganyika in September 1918. Lettow-Vorbeck and his troops crossed the Ruvuma River and entered Tanganyika on September 28, 1918. Instead of moving North or East, the Schutztruppe turned west and entered Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). They captured Kasama and continued south-west towards Katanga. The soldiers reached Chambeshi River in mid-November 1918. A British Magistrate approached the Schutztruppe with a white flag to inform Lettow-Vorbeck that the war was over. The German forces were now made up of 1,168 Askaris, 125 German non-commissioned officers, 30 German officers, and 3,500 porters. Lettow-Vorbeck agreed to a seize-fire ending one of the most remarkable military battle of the First World War. This was the beginning of the end for a war that caused unimaginable suffering in East Africa.
Lettow-Vorbeck is celebrated by some as one of the best guerilla fighters in the world. Much emphasis has been placed in his ability to fight a much bigger, well-supplied forces, and survive for the whole length of the war. The human toll the war took is difficult to overestimate. An estimated one million people died in East Africa during the war. Some died as the direct result of fighting; however, majority died due to hunger and diseases brought on by the war. Tens of thousands were forced to join the armies, most as porters and some as soldiers. German military tactics disrupted farming in a wide region and the resulting famine led to the death of hundreds of thousands. The soldiers scavenged from one place to another, hunting, invading villages and forcing its people to provide food. The German commanders often ordered their soldiers to burn down houses and fields on their path after they decided to move to other areas. This scorched Earth strategy left many communities destitute. A German Doctor who worked at a hospital in Tanga and joined Lettow-Vorbeck wrote in his book after the war: “Behind us we leave destroyed fields, ransacked magazines and, for the immediate future, starvation. We are no longer the agents of culture, our track is marked by death, plundering and evacuated villages, just like the progress of our own and enemy armies in the Thirty Years’ War.” The achievements of the Schutztruppe must be weighed in and assessed against the human cost that their war brought on the African people. The Germans with their African Askaris were, without a doubt, agents of death and suffering. This reality ultimately blurs the boundaries that separate Lettow-Vorbeck the hero from Lettow-Vorbeck the villain.

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Azaria Mbughuni

1 comment:

  1. Most excellent read, Mr Mabughuni! As a German
    and a history buff, I kindly appreciate your prose
    and addition of this historical event.

    War, whether for good or evil is the ultimate agent
    of change. Even the victor pays a dear price in blood
    and treasure. It has and always will be a plague upon